Hong Kong is the “Pearl of the Orient,” in a constant state of renovation. Construction seems to be everywhere; narrow streets are lined with delicately woven bamboo scaffolding holding together colonial buildings. The city clings strongly to past traditions, but still forges ahead with new buildings.

Hong Kong is also a city of dualities. People walk briskly, but queue for a long time at their favorite dai pai dong (roadside eatery) at lunch time. Traditional wet markets are disappearing to make room for high-rise condos, but shrines to the ancestors are almost everywhere. Elders are venerated, but chivalry has flatlined in this town.

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The romance and drama of Hong Kong isn’t lost on visitors. Walking the same streets and docks as notorious triads and famed martial arts legend Bruce Lee harkens nostalgia. English, Cantonese and Mandarin are readily spoken by the highly educated, younger, Westernized population. 

And Hong Kong’s freedom and frivolity flirts with China’s rigidity. On a clear day, the hills in southern China can be seen in the distance from urban Kowloon. The border is a few stops on the MRT (train), but it might as well be a world away. The local society has been perched on the edge of revolution for years. 

Things to Do:

Visit a Traditional Wet Market

Wet markets are in almost every neighborhood in Hong Kong—hurry before they disappear. The city is making room for new buildings that further decorate the skyline, removing wet markets from off the street and into designated buildings. Here you see locals in their element shopping for the day’s meals, bartering, even gambling.

Take a stroll and marvel at strangely mangled, exotic-looking Chinese fruit and vegetables. You can sample bits of fruit before you buy; in fact, it’s encouraged. The seafood stalls offer the freshest catch from the South China Sea, and Hong Kong seafood is served while the fish are still swimming!

Eat

Dai pai dongs are Hong Kong’s culinary pride and joy. The government hasn’t issued any new licenses for almost a decade, so these are true family-run establishments. Think balancing on flimsy plastic chairs, long tables with worn-out plastic covering, while listening to a symphony of sizzling woks as smoke wafts up your nose.  

Menus aren’t in English, so point to something that looks good or check out what your neighbor’s having, and if it looks good, eat that. The best time to go is dinnertime, when the menu list is more extensive. During lunchtime, only a few specialty dishes are served. The average cost for a dai pai dong meal is HKD $40.00 (or $5 American).

If dai pai dongs aren’t your thing, then try dining at dim sum restaurants. In Cantonese, dim sum means to drink tea, and tea is served at every dim sum meal. So when locals say dim sum, they basically mean, “Let’s go drink tea”… which is a little baffling, because the dumplings are definitely the highlight. 

Dim sum is traditionally served at breakfast and lunch, but Din Tai Fun in Causeway Bay is the exception and serves dim sum throughout the day. Order the xiao long bao, little soup dumplings filled with broth. The best way to eat xiao long bao is to bite the top off and allow the broth inside to cool a bit, slurp it up and eat the whole dumpling. 

Dim sum aficionados have a friendly culinary rivalry about the best way to eat soup dumplings, but this method worked best for us. You have to queue here because they don’t take reservations, but it’s well worth the wait. A dim sum dinner for two at Din Tai Fung—with seven perfectly steamed dim sum dishes, free flowing tea and three beers—was HKD $406.00 (or $58 American).

Public Transport, The Best Way to Know Hong Kong:

Ride the Peak Tram

Rising almost 400 meters from the city below, this railway serves as a major draw for tourists and a timesaving tool for commuters. Hong Kong’s only funicular railway has been ferrying passengers since 1888. The tram is a great way to reach the Peak Tower entertainment complex, which has several dining options and a top floor viewing deck with 360-degree views. Strolling along the scenic Harlech and Lugard Roads offers a panoramic view of the island. 

Star Ferry

Views from the water on the Star Ferry are spectacular, which makes the short crossing from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon seven days a week. At HKD $2.50 each way, this is the best, cheapest way to see the harbor. The best time to hop on board is 8pm, when the Symphony of Lights begins. This electrifying light show features over 40 buildings on both sides of the harbor lit up with coordinated music and neon colors. 

Central—Mid-Levels Escalators

Conceived by the Hong Kong government as an innovative means to alleviate traffic congestion, this 800-meter long escalator is probably the world’s only commuter escalator. It carves its way down the Central and Western District, and wends towards the sea. A combination of three moving walkways and 20 escalators, the Mid-Levels has been listed as the “Longest Outdoor Covered Escalator System” in the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s also been immortalized in Hollywood films like The Dark Knight

One of its unintended side effects is the creation of two new entertainment districts: SoHo and NoHo. These areas are home to an array of bars, restaurants, galleries and shops. It’s possible to exit the system at every street; commuters often step off for drinks or dinner on their way home. The escalator runs downhill from 6am to 10am, and uphill from 10am to midnight to accommodate commuters. 

As long as you can bear the temperature, Hong Kong is a pleasant city to walk. Around rush hour, in busy districts like Causeway Bay and Central, locals tend to walk around you, fast. But you’re never too far from an MTR station or a bus stop, and taxis are readily available.

Diana O’Gilvie